|Iolanthe > Reviews > First Night Review
On Saturday, November 25th.
Nothing succeeds like success, and when a composer or author has been fortunate enough to make a reputation, the echoes of past applause linger pleasantly on the public ear long after the work that evoked it has been put aside. Another peculiarity of modern popularity is that when some striking work – be it painting, play, or opera – has attracted the public the author of it finds the greatest difficulty in changing his style. Like the French artist who, having painted a rainy sky with great effect, was compelled to paint only rainy skies for the rest of his artistic career, so it appears that those accomplished operatic concoctors, Messrs. Gilbert and Sullivan, must follow the same path they took in the composition of The Sorcerer, and strike the same keynote as long as they continue to supply audiences with these amusing productions. They gave the public an entirely new dish. The flavour was delightful, and they were called upon to repeat the cookery, which was done with even greater success than before. The Sorcerer in 1877 pleased greatly, and appetite grew with what it fed on, and the demand for something more of the same kind was met in 1878 with H.M.S. Pinafore; again in 1880 The Pirates of Penzance delighted thousands, and the extraordinary run of Patience, produced in 1881, has but just concluded.
We do not imagine for a moment that Mr. Gilbert writes as he does, or that Mr. Sullivan composes as he does, because they have no other vein to work upon. Mr. Gilbert has proved himself a dramatist, and even a poet, of remarkable power in other departments of dramatic art; and Mr. Sullivan can compose a serious opera, or a sacred oratorio, with as much facility as the music of Patience. It is rather a question of supply and demand. Mr. Gilbert chooses to look at the affairs of ordinary life from the topsy-turvy point of view, and none can question the amount of amusement he has supplied in doing so. In Patience the extravagances of the æsthetic craze gave him ample opportunities to let fly his keen shafts of wit and satire; but by common consent we have had enough of that, and the fancy lightly touched upon in The Pirates of Penzance is fully elaborated in Iolanthe. The whimsical notion of "noblemen gone wrong" in the former opera is here carried to the utmost limit of the ludicrous.
There is no necessity for comparisons between former operas and the work which drew so large an audience to the Savoy Theatre last Saturday night. Enough to say that the visitors laughed and applauded as of old, and as they will probably laugh and applaud for a twelvemonth to come. They called the author and composer, and cheered them in the old genial style, and those gentlemen walked off the stage looking completely satisfied, as no doubt they have every reason to be, and if severe criticism chooses to detect certain weak points in the story and certain repetitions in the dialogue, or the musician is occasionally reminded of familiar echoes, what of that? The Savoy Theatre, lighted like no other theatre in Europe, and looking exceptionally brilliant on this occasion, was crammed to its utmost capacity, as it will be for many a month to come; therefore let us accept Iolanthe as a good fairy whose mission is to please, charm, and amuse the public, and let us tell her singular and whimsical story.
The first act opens in an Arcadian landscape, and a group of fairies is seen tripping on the sward to one of those pleasant and tuneful choruses Mr. Sullivan writes so gracefully. We learn from the gossip of the fairies – for they, like mortals, have that feminine weakness – that Iolanthe is expiating in a remarkable manner her error of a quarter of a century past. She had married a mortal; and the punishment of that crime was death; but the Fairy Queen had commuted the sentence, and she is working out her sentence "on her head" at the bottom of a stream. The fairies plead for her, and eventually she is forgiven by the Queen, and comes to the surface of the stream covered with weeds and water lilies.
Soon we discover that Iolanthe, although looking not more than seventeen, is the mother of Strephon, a youth of twenty-five, who, although he is tenderly attached to his youthful-looking mamma, finds it rather inconvenient to be half mortal and half fairy. He says:– "It's the curse of my existence! What's the use of being half a fairy? My body can creep through a keyhole, but what's the good of that when my legs are left kicking behind? I can make myself invisible down to the waist, but that's of no use when my legs are left exposed to view? My brain is a fairy brain, but from the waist downwards I'm a gibbering idiot. My upper half is immortal, but my lower half grows older every day, and some day or other must die of old age. What's to become of my upper half when I've buried my lower half I really don't know!"
Strephon has fallen in love with Phyllis, a pretty rustic maiden, but a ward in Chancery. It was to have been the wedding day of the youthful couple, but alas! the Lord Chancellor and the House of Lords intervene, and, indeed, they intervene in a most extraordinary manner, for, having heard from the Lord Chancellor of the charms of Phyllis, they come down to her arcadian retreat to judge for themselves of her beauty and grace. They come arrayed in all the splendour of court costume, and headed by the Guards band, and the Lord Chancellor himself keeps them company. In this scene one of Mr. Sullivan's prettiest ideas is introduced. Nothing could be better of its kind than the pompous blustering mock-heroic march that ushers in the procession. It has a striking and effective melody, and it blends admirably with the finale. This march will be sure to become popular. It will be heard everywhere. But we must continue the story.
The Lord Chancellor, who is grotesquely described as "a very clean old gentleman," explains to the surrounding peers his own lamentable position. He has fallen in love with Phyllis himself. "Phyllis," remarks his lordship, "as a Ward of Court, has so powerfully affected your Lordships, that you have appealed to me in a body to give her to whichever one of you she may think proper to select, and a noble lord has just gone to her cottage to request her immediate attendance. It would be idle to deny that I, myself, have the misfortune to be singularly attracted by this young person. My regard for her is rapidly undermining my constitution. Three months ago I was a stout man. I need say no more. If I could reconcile it with my duty, I should unhesitatingly award her to myself, for I can conscientiously say that I know no man who is so well-fitted to render her exceptionally happy. But such an award would be open to misconstruction, and, therefore, at whatever personal inconvenience, I waive my claim." Two noblemen are especially infatuated with the charming ward. These are the Earls of Mountararat and the Earl of Tolloller, who tenderly appeals to the maiden:—
But while the Lords are discussing the difficult question as to which of their number shall be the possessor of so much grace and beauty, Strephon comes to claim his bride. There is an elaborate finale worthy of a grand opera. Strephon, poor fellow, is puzzled with Chancery proceedings. The following dialogue, so characteristic of Mr. Gilbert occurs:—
STREPHON. — My Lord, I know no Courts of Chancery; I go by Nature’s Acts of Parliament. The bees – the breeze – the seas – the rooks – the brooks – the gales – the vales – the fountains and the mountains cry, "You love this maiden – take her, we command you!" 'Tis writ in heaven by the bright barbèd dart that leaps forth into lurid light from each grim thundercloud. The very rain pours forth her sad and sodden sympathy! When chorused Nature bids me take my love, shall I reply, “Nay, but a certain Chancellor forbids it”? Sir, you are England’s Lord High Chancellor, but are you Chancellor of birds and trees, king of the winds and prince of thunderclouds?
LORD CHANCELLOR. — No. It’s a nice point. I don’t know that I ever met it before. But my difficulty is that at present there’s no evidence before the court that chorused Nature has interested herself in the matter.
STREPHON. — No evidence! You have my word for it. I tell you that she bade me take my love.
LORD CHANCELLOR. — Ah! but, my good sir, you mustn’t tell us what she told you – it’s not evidence. Now an affidavit from a thunderstorm, or a few words on oath from a heavy shower, would meet with all the attention they deserve.
It is determined to ignore the claims of Strephon, and the fairy Iolanthe comes, surprised to find her son in tears. Then comes the ridiculous revelation that she is the wife of the Lord Chancellor, who has seen nothing of her for twenty-five years, and is ignorant of the birth of her son. Affairs are still further complicated by Strephon being seen with his mother by Phyllis, who immediately becomes violently jealous, as the mamma is handsome, and only looks to be seventeen. The Queen of the Fairies tells the Chancellor and the Peers that it is Strephon's mother, but this statement they reject with scorn, and the act closes with the separation of the lovers.
The second act opens with a most beautiful and remarkable scene of Palace-yard, Westminster. There was great applause at the rising of the curtain, as the scene realised the actual spot with a fidelity rare even in these realistic days. The Victoria Tower and the Houses of Parliament are seen in the background illuminated. The House is sitting, and Private Willis, a sentry, is pacing to and fro outside. The sentry has a very quaint song, and then Lord Mountararat and Earl Tolloller enter, and a rather long dialogue ensues respecting the conduct of Strephon, who, by the aid of the Fairy Queen, has got into Parliament, and is carrying every bill he presents.
A song for Lord Mountararat, "When Britain really ruled the waves," was cleverly sung by Mr. Rutland Barrington. Mr. Sullivan has ingeniously interwoven some phrases from "Rule Britannia" with this air. The words are rather comic, and no doubt the description of the House of Lords as "doing nothing in particular and doing it very well," will be often quoted by the Radical opponents of the Peers.
From this point the action becomes rather tame. In fact, there is very little plot to tell; but pretty music, whimsical dialogue, and some fanciful fairy scenes, rendered all the more eccentric by being represented under the shadow of the House of Commons, keep the audience amused. The two noblemen most interested in Phyllis have an argument as to which of them shall resign her, when the young lady herself enters, and in this scene a really charming quartet, with the refrain "In friendship's name," may be cited as one of the gems of the opera. It is sung by Messrs Barrington, Lely, and Manners, and Miss Leonora Braham. We dislike encores, but here there was really an excuse, for the quartet is elegant and tuneful in no ordinary degree. The Lord Chancellor again appears perplexed more than ever what to do. Mr. Grossmith in this scene sings a patter song with extraordinary volubility.
Meanwhile Strephon and Phyllis have met again, and the old love is renewed; while the Chancellor has come to the conclusion that he may legally marry Phyllis after all. He says exultingly, "Victory! victory! Success has crowned my efforts, and I may consider myself engaged to Phyllis! At first I wouldn't hear of it – it was out of the question. But I took heart. I pointed out to myself that I was no stranger to myself – that, in point of fact, I had been personally acquainted with myself for some years. This had its effect. I admitted that I had watched my professional advancement with considerable interest, and I handsomely added that I yielded to no one in admiration for my private and professional virtues. This was a great point gained. I then endeavoured to work upon my feelings. Conceive of my joy when I distinctly perceived a tear glistening in my own eye! Eventually, after a severe struggle with myself, I reluctantly – most reluctantly – consented!"
But the appearance of Iolanthe changes the aspect of affairs. She reveals herself to the Chancellor as his wife, and it also appears that the fairies, who have all along been hankering after an alliance with mortals, have become duchesses, marchionesses, countesses, viscountesses, and baronesses. The Fairy Queen, however, enters with her three confidential attendants, looking very brilliant with electric lights glittering on their heads, and tells the Chancellor "it is death to marry a mortal." The Lord Chancellor suggests that it will be as well to insert a single word and make it death not to marry a mortal. Forthwith the Peers, the Chancellor, and even the guardsman on sentry, find wings sprouting from their shoulders. They are fairies, and with this ludicrous transformation Iolanthe came to an end amidst the hearty laughter of the audience.
We need not dwell at great length upon the character of the libretto. It will at once be seen that Mr. Gilbert is still travelling over the same ground where he has so often journeyed with success. His quips and cranks, his odd suggestions will be quoted and laughed at, as before, and as for the House of Lords, no doubt the Peers will visit the Savoy and enjoy the author's humour even more than others.
Mr. Sullivan's music is everywhere graceful, melodious, and musicianly, even if at times we are reminded that he has studied the works of other popular composers closely. For example, we have occasionally a reminiscence of Wagner, and anon there is an echo of Gounod, while the dexterity with which he catches the spirit of old English songs must be recognised with a view of commending his faculty in that direction rather than with any idea of blame, for it is well to perpetuate the delightful character of some of our old English music. Amongst the prettiest items may be named the opening duet for Strephon and Phyllis, "None shall part us," and a really beautiful melody is that allotted to Iolanthe in the final scene. The ballad in question "He loves" is really charming. The pretty quartet we have already referred to, and the trio in the last act for the Chancellor and the two Peers, is extremely lively, gay, and fluent, although less original than some of the other pieces. The choral portions are written remarkably well, and the female chorus was admirably in tune and delightful to hear.
We have already referred to the splendour with which the work was put upon the stage. The state costumes of Messrs. Ede and Son, court robemakers to Her Majesty, &c., are alone worth a visit to see. The two scenes are beautiful, that of the Houses of Parliament being a marvel of its kind.
The performers are as clever and competent as ever, although some of the principals have hardly such individual characters as upon some former occasions. Mr. George Grossmith as the Lord Chancellor brings all his comic talent and skill to bear upon one of the drollest impersonations imaginable. A Lord Chancellor making love is comic enough in itself, and Mr. Grossmith's method of delineating the effect of the tender passion is humorous in the extreme. His wonderful facility in delivering the greatest number of comic lines in the shortest possible time, and yet making every word distinct and intelligible, calls for hearty admiration, and was rewarded – if reward it could be called – with enthusiastic encores. The dry, precise, legal, formal, and sententious way in which the Chancellor treats the question of proposing to Phyllis would make the gloomiest visitor break into a broad grin. Too much praise could hardly be awarded to this characteristic impersonation.
Mr. Rutland Barrington and Mr. Durward Lely have characters very much alike in the two Earls in love with Phyllis. Both gentlemen acquitted themselves well. They had little to sing, but their delivery of the eccentric dialogue did it full justice, and gained them frequent and hearty applause.
Mr. Manners as the stolid sentry was amusing, and sang his song with great spirit and drollery. Private Willis is quite an original character, and Mr. Manners renders the part in a most amusing fashion. He says –
There was also grotesque humour in his acceptance of the Fairy Queen that was diverting in the extreme, and caused infinite amusement. The sentry argues with himself how he is to employ his brains, "supposing that he's got any." Happily Mr. Manners has brains, and uses them to good purpose.
Mr. R. Temple, although at times it was felt that a tenor voice would have been best for the part, sang so well, and made so much of the comic lines given to his part, that he fully deserved the cordial reception he met with. In several scenes he was extremely humorous, and even original.
No more stately Queen of the Fairies could be desired than Miss Alice Barnett. She sang well and acted with dignity and effect. Many a laugh was heard when she was described as hovering on the petals of a flower. Miss Barnett deserved warm commendation for her rendering of a recitative and air in the first act.
Miss Jessie Bond, as Iolanthe, may also be credited with all the grace, delicacy, and fascination we should expect from a fairy mother, and her singing of the really exquisite melody in the last scene was one of the most successful items in the entire opera.
Miss Julia Gwynne, Miss Fortescue, and Miss Sybil Grey were charming as the three attendant Fairies.
The rustic heroine Phyllis, as represented by Miss Leonora Braham, was an interesting figure from first to last, especially as Miss Braham imparts just the requisite mixture of simplicity, tenderness, and coquetry. Her singing was effective as usual, particularly in the concerted music, where her bright voice was heard to great advantage. Prettily dressed, and acting with her accustomed animation, the "Ward in Chancery" might well turn the heads of the Peers, or even the solemn pate of a Lord Chancellor.
We take leave of Iolanthe with a conviction that it will be many a month ere her name will be removed from the bills of the Savoy Theatre.
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